These tips on creating a safe space for practice were originally shared by a long-term Attachment Repair student in our Slack community.
I wanted to share my process and tips for building an imaginal safe space. I use this space as a foundation for all my attachment/schema work. Basically, that’s where I prepare for the ‘main’ work, and it’s a container and location for imagery. I also use it to hunker down when I feel anxious or overwhelmed, and sometimes to help me fall asleep. The ‘safe space’ work has become central for me. I realized its importance when I started experiencing it like it’s a living breathing entity.
I wrote out a list of practice ideas for this kind of work. Some of this comes from materials presented in ATR courses, some is from Martin Rossman (example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYJdekjiAog&t=3960s) or from other imaginal resources. However, this is my interpretation of the material and a lot of it is my own trial and error – I’m in no way claiming this is the absolute truth and that it’s going to work for everyone. Take what’s helpful and throw away the rest.
Relaxation – it’s important to relax to the best of your abilities before you dive in. However, don’t get too hung up on tension that’s impossible to release – work on relaxing the tension you can access consciously.
Two hacks I use:
1) Really extend those exhales and pay attention to the body relaxing as you do. As more and more of the mind tunes in to the sense of relaxing, some of the unconscious tension will go away.
2) Use a mental cue. I use the word “Rest”. I say it slowly in my head, my imaginal parents say it to me, or I imagine a voice saying it from above. In the imaginal space, I sometimes have an airplane dragging the sign “Rest”. Or I’m flying to my safe space and instead of “Fasten your seatbelt”, there’s a “Rest” sign. Find your word and be consistent with it. After two-three weeks of practice, you’ll be able to relax the whole body on the fly and in any situation just by using the word “Rest”.
Engage all the senses – the more senses you engage, the more ‘real’ and believable it will feel. Start with sense modalities that are easy for you and use them to reinforce senses that are not. It doesn’t have to be sharp and clear, multisensory experience is more believable, even if it’s foggy. If you’re on a beach, maybe you don’t need to imagine a perfect vista. Try connecting to the sense of having sand under your feet, the warmth of the sun on your skin or hearing the waves crashing. And this is going to be tricky in the beginning, so don’t get frustrated and just emphasize the most important part – a felt sense of being safe.
Use memory fragments instead of brute force visualization – it’s much easier to remember (with detail) a house you spent some time in than it is to build an abstract one in your mind. Overall, aim to fill up the imaginal space with elements that are personally meaningful.
Exercise: imagine a place you felt comfortable in and take a walking tour through it. Notice how your mind is building the imagery and filling it out with details without any micromanagement.
Set the core of the safe space – shuffle through your memories and find moments where you felt really safe and comforted. It can be a place you went to hide, or somewhere where you played. It can even be a person.
My core is my parents’ bedroom in the apartment where I grew up. If I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep, I’d go lie in their bed. 35 years later, I can still remember the smell of the room. I used that room as the core of the safe space. I don’t even go there in my meditations anymore, but I know it’s there if I need it.
Consistency – Early on, try to consistently imagine the same (easy) places and details. This will breed familiarity, reinforce the elements and build imaginal skills for other work. The more often you do it, the better.
Relationship with the safe space – Pay attention to how you emotionally respond to things that happen in the imaginal. Look for the relaxation of the body, feeling of being unconstrained by other’s expectations and fully accepted. This will create a positive feedback loop of trust and openness.
After 2-3 months of work it became possible for me to release repressed grief and relax anxiety within minutes of getting into the safe space.
Creativity and working with resistance/fears – You’ll inevitably run into resistance and fear while doing this work. Just remember, the imaginal is your domain, you can make whatever you want/need of it.
When starting this work, I had a lot of death anxiety and it was interfering with my sits. I imagined a very safe island on an archipelago where nothing could go wrong. But the anxiety presented a problem – what if there’s a tidal wave? It would crush everything and everyone on the island. It really derailed my practice until I came up with an invisible dome that was protecting the place from the tidal waves.
Place for exploration and play – The safe space can have opportunities and places for exploration (think mountains, forests, rivers, etc.), skill building, toys. It can have a theme park. No limits here, whatever can help you cultivate joy.
Don’t be afraid to reimagine/change things – We might imagine this space in a certain way when we start our work, but then realize we have a better way of imagining something, or that an element no longer serves us. This is your space so feel free to change what needs to be different. Follow your instincts here.
My safe space used to be my uncle’s house, and now it’s something completely different – a space with beautiful nature and a house where I can go to feel more ‘contained’. Similarly, my imaginal parents are not the same pair as they were four months ago.
The safe space can be flexible and responsive to your needs – The safe space can respond to your present needs. For example, when I feel lonely, I bring in my friends, pets, or benefactors to hang out with me.
Reinforce the experience in waking life – if you find motifs in real life that correspond to elements of your safe space, take a few moments to reconnect to the experience, relax and soak it in. Create a bridge between the imaginal safe space and what’s going on.
I just came back from a vacation – I spent time to reinforce safe images by floating in the real sea and imagining I’m doing it on my inner island, being held and nurtured by the imaginal sea. I took time to imprint the sound of crickets and wind into my mind.
Deep and symbolical work – this goes beyond the basics I intended to write here. But the safe space can be used for all kinds of inner work. I’ve done dreamwork, worked symbolically with values and emotions (think tending to a garden where you plant these resources instead of plants). I’ve also used it for the ‘Conference method’ to work with parts of the self.